Attorney General Roy Cooper said Monday that elected officials must accurately complete ethical disclosure forms, and he called charging fees for public records a “shift toward” secrecy in state government.
Cooper spoke at the N.C. Open Government Coalition’s Sunshine Day, a gathering of journalists, citizens and government officials to focus on transparency in government. While Cooper didn’t mention Gov. Pat McCrory by name, his comments come as the governor faces criticism for amending his required ethics disclosure forms several times to show previously unreported trips and Duke Energy stock holdings.
“We need to make sure that candidates and public officials comply,” Cooper said, adding that the public needs to know about “economic ties that could be a conflict of interest.”
Asked about McCrory’s ethics disclosures, Cooper said “I don’t know about that situation.” He added that the forms aren’t difficult to understand.
Cooper, a Democrat, is widely expected to run against McCrory in 2016, though he hasn’t formally announced his candidacy.
Cooper also criticized the growing trend in state government to charge fees for public records requests, saying the practice is “not good customer service.”
McCrory’s administration has been assessing a “special service charge” on records requests it considers burdensome and involving significant staff time to prepare.
“There seems to be little will to put things right,” Cooper said.
The attorney general said government officials have a responsibility to make records available in a timely manner. “Access to public information is a real foundation of our freedom,” he said. “North Carolina has a tradition of putting government out in the sunshine. The light of public scrutiny protects people.”
Cooper called on legislators to act on two of his proposals: a making it a felony to lie to State Bureau of Investigation agents, and creating a grand jury process for corruption allegations.
As Cooper spoke on the importance of open government, the N.C. Republican Party filed a request seeking Cooper’s own email records; correspondence with lawmakers; correspondence with former Govs. Bev Perdue and Mike Easley; correspondence with former Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton; and Cooper’s official calendar since 2001, including use of state vehicles and airplanes for official travel.
The email part of the request from the GOP asks Cooper to provide copies of all emails he’s sent during his 14 years in office, including correspondence with governors and legislators.
“Attorney General Roy Cooper can give a speech about defending transparency and wave around his public records manual, but when it comes to his own record of open government, the facts tell a different story,” party Executive Director Todd Poole said in a news release. “The truth is that Roy Cooper only defends the state’s open records law when it’s convenient for himself or his political allies.”
Cooper told reporters Monday that he hadn’t yet seen the request but plans to comply with records laws. “We provide public records to those who ask for them,” he said. Steve Riley contributed to this report
Awards for records work
Four North Carolinians who have worked to advance the flow of public information – including The News & Observer’s Dan Kane – were honored Monday at the N.C. Open Government Coalition’s annual Sunshine Day program in Durham. Those honored:
▪ Charlotte lawyer Gary Jackson, who sued to make public a confidential settlement between the former Wachovia bank and Carolinas HealthCare System that involved a dispute over handling of the hospital’s investments. Jackson sued to make it clear that a settlement involving a public body should be public, even if the public body was the plaintiff, not the defendant.
▪ Deputy State Treasurer Brenda Williams, who was praised for her efforts to educate the public about the state escheat fund. The fund handles hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed property and tries to find the owners.
▪ Dan Kane, an N&O reporter who has broken a string of stories about the academic and athletic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill. During four years of work, Kane filed dozens of public record requests that helped reveal the system of bogus classes that helped keep athletes eligible to play.
▪ Kurt Naas of Charlotte, a private citizen who used a public records request to fight a state proposal for toll roads to finance the widening of Interstate 77 in Charlotte.
The coalition operates the Sunshine Center at Elon University; the awards were the first in a new series of annual awards.
Sunshine Day is a key part of Sunshine Week, when advocates for open government celebrate the importance of freedom of information.